Quick Take:

People associate Jack O’Neill, who died in 2017 at the age of 94, with inventing the wetsuit, which allowed him and other surfers to spend more time in cold water. As we approach what would have been his 100th birthday on Monday, Tracey Weiss, executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey, encourages us to celebrate Jack’s role in ocean protection and education. Jack called the program, which focuses on educating youth about the ocean, his “greatest achievement.”

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Long before he established his first Santa Cruz surf shop at the current site of the Dream Inn, Jack O’Neill was looking for ways to stay warm while surfing in Northern California’s cold waters. His efforts birthed the wetsuit, revolutionized surfing (and other water sports) and made him a local icon.

More than 70 years after he started his business and on his centennial birthday, let’s remember not just his marvelous invention, but also his spirit and his dedication to coastal access, ocean protection and education through the creation of O’Neill Sea Odyssey.

I’ve been executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey for the past year and have talked to many in our community who recall the awe they felt at seeing a whale’s giant tail appear in the water, tasting salt on their lips or sailing around the wharf or seeing the Beach Boardwalk from the sea on board the Sea Odyssey. The experience creates a sense of wonder that can’t be replicated on land. It serves as a crucial spark to ignite curiosity and connection to our coastal ecosystem.

Before we can ask the next generation to protect and conserve this ecosystem, we have to give them that spark, that passion and sense of the sea as a space of mystery and magic. I have been told Jack spoke of O’Neill Sea Odyssey as his greatest achievement. He once said, “I want to keep this program going on and on.”

He is getting his wish.

Jack O'Neill and Harry Hind.
Jack O’Neill and Harry Hind. Credit: Via Tracey Weiss

Jack’s journey started in the early 1950s, when he surfed at Kelly’s Cove, below the Cliff House in San Francisco, with his friend Harry Hind (who would later back him on construction of a surf shop at the Santa Cruz Harbor). Jack wanted to surf longer and resolved to find a way to keep warm, ultimately developing a thermal suit design using neoprene.

Jack also became an avid ocean protector, and as he thought about the need for ocean conservation, he realized youth were missing from the conversation. He wanted to fix that and to help cultivate the next generation of ocean protectors.

That’s why, after building his wetsuit business into an international leader in design and production, Jack turned his attention to education. He created O’Neill Sea Odyssey to eliminate barriers for youth wanting to learn about and experience our ocean ecosystem.

To do ocean education as he wanted, Jack knew he needed a boat. He wanted kids on the water, learning about sailing and science, not in a classroom on land.

Main Street School
Credit: O’Neill Sea Odyssey

In 1983, he and his son, Tim O’Neill, traveled to Sand City to retrieve an unfinished sailing catamaran to transform into an ocean classroom. They named it “Team O’Neill,” and in the past 25 years, 117,000 students have boarded it for a free, educational experience at sea.

The boat, 65 feet long and 28 feet wide, served in the 1980s as a platform for Jack’s hot-air balloon and was a natural fit for the program. The vision coalesced when Tim began to work with Jim Holm, Carl Keehn, Mike Egan and Theresa Coyle, among others, to develop a school science program. Dan Haifley joined as the first executive director in 1999 to help further the mission.

Today, the goal remains the same: to offer innovative, hands-on, dynamic learning.

While on board, kids don’t realize how much they are learning about conservation, watersheds and the fragile ocean ecosystems. They are curious and immersed — excited by the water and waves and whales.

Tracey Weiss is executive director of O'Neill Sea Odyssey.
Tracey Weiss is executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey. Credit: Via Tracey Weiss

Since the program launched in 1996, O’Neill has expanded its reach and continued to eliminate barriers to ocean access. In 1999, Tom and Judy Webster established the Adam Webster Memorial Fund, which develops custom education plans for students with special needs.

O’Neill Sea Odyssey has also added bilingual instruction, translated its curriculum and built the “Transportation for Ocean Stewards” program to provide student groups with support to travel to the Santa Cruz Harbor. We are now also using our new catamaran, built per Jack’s wishes, but launched after he passed in 2017, in the program. This year we are serving a total of 170 school classes with a hands-on opportunity to learn about Monterey Bay.

The program went on hiatus during the pandemic, but has returned with gusto and will soon reach our goal of 125,000 students served. We are planning a party this fall to honor Jack’s birthday and of more than 25 years of successful programs.

Stay tuned for information on this celebration. It will be an opportunity to honor Jack and secure the program’s success for future generations.

The O'Neill Sea Odyssey catamaran sits docked in this 2021 file photo.
The O’Neill Sea Odyssey catamaran sits docked in this 2021 file photo. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Happy 100th, Jack — we are grateful for your vision and commitment to the enjoyment and education of our ocean.

Tracey Weiss is the executive director for O’Neill Sea Odyssey and is a board member of the California Marine Sanctuary Foundation. She lives in Live Oak with her wife and family.